As a student of English and Creative/Professional Writing, I’m also a student of linguistic concision. I have read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well twice and taken enough Mass Comm classes to be my own editor. But what I admire most about some writers is their ability to convey not mere sentences but entire nuanced ideas with less words than another may have.
Ernest Hemingway is an obvious case study, with his short, terse prose. This semester I took an American Modernists class, in which I read two Hemingway novels, In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises, as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The two were geniuses, but their writing style couldn’t have been more different.
Before we read The Sun Also Rises in class, we learned about the time in which Hemingway wrote it. One peculiar fact: he read The Great Gatsby just before he started writing. He approved of it. In his memoir, A Moveable Feast,he wrote: “If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he cold write an even better one. I did not know Zelda yet, and so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him.”
Hemingway and Fitzgerald belonged to the same group of American expatriate artists in Paris and wrote about the same themes that would later be known as “modernist.” But some similarities between Gatsby and Sun Also Rises are too close—so close that, if I had to make a poorly researched hypothesis, I would say that Hemingway stole imagery from Gatsby for his own novel, taking it as a challenge to condense Fitzgerald’s complex images and themes into smaller and smaller sentences and lines of dialogue.
I have no research to back this, and I don’t have the time to research it right now, but look at the sentences below and tell me they aren’t too similar for a rival writer to have pulled from one work and made that material his own.
Nick, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, writes this as he ruminates on what the green light meant to Gatsby, comparing it to how immigrants must have felt long ago when first coming ashore in America:
“And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world,” (180, Gatsby).
Hemingway uses the same imagery in The Sun Also Rises, although true to Hemingway’s style, the thought is contained within a much more concise sentence:
“He looked a great deal as his compatriot must have looked when he saw the promised land” (29, SAR).
Throughout Gatsby we are fed imagery of a green light, which symbolizes the illusory American Dream. Though Fitzgerald argues against the existence of such a lofty dream, he does comment on the beauty of dreams in relation to human nature (“to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther”):
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
At the end of his own novel, Hemingway seems to have condensed the entirety of Gatsby‘s green light symbolism into one line of dialogue, spoken by one character to the woman he loves but cannot be with:
“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”